NOTE: The WCS site in Texas does lie over the southern edge of the Midwest's huge Ogalalla aquifer (the largest aquifer on earth), contrary to the claim made in this report.
Radioactive waste will roll through area
By Elizabethe Holland
St Louis Post-Dispatch
Saturday June 4, 2005
Beginning Monday and extending through the end of the year, trucks loaded with
thousands of tons of radioactive waste will pass through the St. Louis area on
their way to a temporary resting place in Texas.
More than half of the waste will be making its second visit here. It came from
the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works on the riverfront just north of downtown.
Mallinckrodt, an atomic-age pioneer, altered the course of World War II by
developing a way to purify uranium to the grade needed to make the atomic bomb.
After the war - in the 1950s - 6,000 tons of radioactive byproducts from the
processing were shipped to a uranium processing plant northwest of Cincinnati,
where it was kept in silos. There it has stayed for the last half-century. But
now the Department of Energy is intent on cleaning up the site at Fernald,
Ohio, and shutting it down for good because it's located near a major water
supply and heavily populated areas. That means finding yet another home for the
The department has chosen a temporary site in Texas, which means that the waste
will be carted on flatbed trailers and sent along highways that snake through
the Metro East area, south St. Louis County and westward to Texas. The site in
Texas is not near a water supply and is in a less populated area. It is also
drier in Texas, and so drainage problems from the site would be minimal.
Radiation coming from radioactive waste can cause cancer and genetic damage.
Experts have long differed on how much exposure is dangerous. The waste coming
from Cincinnati will be shipped in secured steel containers, and the material
inside is encased in concrete. Those involved in the shipping say hazardous
material in containers far less secure moves on the nation's highways every
Unconvinced is Kay Drey, a local activist and board member of the
Washington-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service. She notes the irony
of having the waste return to the Gateway City, even if it is only passing
through. And she and other environmentalists are not at all pleased that it
will make a 1,300-mile trek across the country, particularly when its
destination is a place it may remain for only two years.
"They're moving from one temporary disposal facility in this massive attack on
our highways to another temporary facility, and with no permanent place to go -
and placing people at risk ... everywhere along the way," said Drey, of
The contractor in charge of the move, Fluor Fernald, also would prefer to ship
the waste to a permanent site. But spokesmen for the company said the material
could be moved safely.
"You always hate to speculate when it comes to what's vulnerable out on the
road, but we'll argue there are things that are traveling across the interstate
every day that would make more of a statement than a concrete block in a steel
casing," said Jeff Wagner of Fluor Fernald.
"Everything we can do from a personal health and safety standpoint is being
considered on this, and certainly the same holds true for environmentally."
15 trucks a day
The move will begin with one truck taking to the highway Monday. Eventually,
though, Fluor Fernald plans to move 15 trucks per day, with each truck carrying
two 20,000-pound containers of encased waste. The trucks will run seven days a
week through December. In all, Fluor Fernald expects to move 4,000 containers,
said Dennis Carr, the project director.
The containers, riveted shut when full, are made of half-inch-thick carbon
steel and measure 6 1/2 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. Empty, each weighs
In each will be a combination of radioactive waste, concrete and flyash - a
fine black ash produced in a coal-fired boiler plant, according to Wagner.
Radioactive waste from two of Fernald's silos will make up about 20 percent of
each container, with concrete and flyash making up the other 80 percent, Wagner
said. The waste - byproducts of ores that were exceptionally rich in uranium
from the former Belgian Congo - includes radium, thorium, lead, polonium and
The trucks will be outfitted with global positioning systems, and authorities
who would respond to possible emergencies involving the shipments have been
informed of what is coming their way, Carr said.
"There's no expectation of a problem, but in the event that there is, we're
prepared to deal with it," he said.
Lee Sobotka, a Washington University professor of nuclear chemistry and nuclear
physics, said the waste's packaging falls short of being as safe as it could
be. He would rather see the waste undergo vitrification - a process that would
turn it into a glasslike product that many scientists feel would remain more
stable over time.
But if Fluor Fernald takes no shortcuts in preparing and packaging the waste,
risks to public safety while the waste is in transit are low, Sobotka said.
Sobotka would also prefer to see the material delivered to a permanent site.
"It's not an ultimate solution," Sobotka said. "As a scientist, do I wish that
there was a better plan and that it was being vitrified? Yes. Do I wish it was
going to its final resting place? Yes. But the plague of trying to do
everything perfect is paralysis."
Sierra Club suit
Cyrus Reed, a lobbyist for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, would
rather see Fluor Fernald's plans paralyzed. The chapter has appealed a decision
earlier this year that paved the way for Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists
to accept the waste, a move that resulted in a $7.5 million contract for the
A hearing for the appeal is scheduled for July 11 - well after the shipments
are under way.
"They're jumping the gun," Reed said. "Waste is being moved before we've even
had a hearing."
Meanwhile, Waste Control Specialists is hoping for another change in its
license - one that would allow it to permanently dispose of the radioactive
materials as well, said George Dials, the firm's president and chief operating
As it stands, the waste can remain at the Andrews County site along the
Texas-New Mexico border for only two years from the dates shipments arrive.
"We would have loved to go immediately to a disposal facility, but that option
was not open," Wagner said. "At least you're getting the material off-site,
which is certainly a step in the right direction in order to be able to finish
the Fernald cleanup."
Drey vehemently disagrees. She suspects Fluor Fernald is acting quickly due to
extra money it will receive depending on when the cleanup is done. The
Department of Energy has a target date of Dec. 31, 2006. If Fluor Fernald
completes the cleanup by March 2006, it will receive an "incentive fee" of $288
million on top of reimbursement for cleanup costs, according to Wagner. If it
completes its work after December 2006, the incentive fee falls to $63 million.
Overall, including costs accrued since the 1989 plant closing, the Department
of Energy is expected to spend $4.4 billion on the cleanup, Wagner said.
Whatever the reasons behind the shipments to begin this weekend, Drey would
like to see them stalled until a better solution is developed.
"What's the rush if it's been there for 50 years?" Drey asked. "It could go
back again, it really could, as crazy as it sounds. We have no idea."
Reporter Elizabethe Holland
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